Consider what may seem to be an odd comparison:  Facebook and God.  For purposes of discussion, we will compare Facebook to the traditional Judeo-Christian God of the Old and New Testaments.  And we will restrict the comparison primarily to two matters:  communication and trust (or faith).

Users of Facebook communicate with that entity by entering personal information into Facebook’s system.  That act of communication is accompanied by a certain level of trust, or faith.  Facebook promises to safeguard one’s information and not to reveal it to anyone else without your permission.  Users can set up various levels of security ranging from public (anyone can see it) to very private (only a selected list of people can see it).  In entrusting what is sometimes very personal data to Facebook, the user expects Facebook to safeguard it in accordance with Facebook’s own promises.

According to most traditions, God will not tolerate being used.  In the book of Luke, when the Devil tempts Jesus to throw himself from the top of the temple to show that God the Father will keep him from being injured, Jesus replies, “Thou shalt not tempt (test) the Lord thy God.” In throwing himself off the temple, Jesus would have been using God for the purposes of performing a stunt, and so Jesus rightly rejected the Devil’s proposal.

But believers in God, those who trust in him, communicate with God by praying.  God has made promises regarding prayer, such as listening to those who call upon him, and in the person of Jesus, he has said such radical things as “. . . whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  So those who trust in God will certainly pray for things they want, but they also trust God that his vastly superior knowledge and insight will lead him to do things differently than our limited minds can conceive.  It is part of wisdom to ask God for things we want, but not to tell him how to get them done.

What do Facebook users expect from their communications with Facebook?  Well, nobody I know puts stuff on Facebook simply for the pleasure of seeing it show up there.  The hope is that other people will see it and react in some way that one hopes is personally gratifying, or at least useful.  (I’m ignoring the commercial and institutional uses of Facebook for the moment, and concentrating on the personal user only.)  And by and large, most Facebook users see that happen enough to keep them using it, although most people I know who have used Facebook have sworn off it for a while at least once, usually during election season.

How about the trust angle of Facebook?  On Saturday 3 April, a hacker published a list of some 500 million phone numbers and other personal data scraped from Facebook.  News reports say that anyone with rudimentary data skills can access this list.  Facebook says that the list was obtained through a fault that they patched back in 2019, and the data is two years old.  Still, not a lot has changed in the lives of many of those people since 2019, and the result is that everyone whose data is on that list has another increment of concern to add to the dangers of online existence. 

For most people, this particular breach will not have serious consequences, except to underline the fact that what Facebook promises and what Facebook delivers are two different things.  This is not a surprise to some Australians who used Facebook to share news items until Facebook decided last February that they couldn’t, as a move in response to a proposal by the Australian government to make Facebook pay for news items it puts on its own platforms. 

Both God and Facebook share the characteristic of inscrutability.  One never knows quite what either entity is going to do.  The believer explains that God is inscrutable to us because God knows everything and we don’t.  The Facebook user explains Facebook’s inscrutability because Facebook is a large, physically distributed organisation whose inner workings and leading personalities are obscured from the general public, and even governments have a hard time figuring out what Facebook is up to. 

The comparison breaks down completely when we ask about the moral character of each entity.  By definition, God is the ultimate perfection of every virtue:  all-wise, all-knowing, and all-loving.  Facebook, on the other hand, is composed of fallible human beings, and exists primarily to make money, while staying enough within the law to operate profitably in the various jurisdictions around the world where it has a presence, which is essentially everywhere on earth.  To expect perfection from Facebook, or any other human organisation, is to set oneself up for disappointment.

So while my sympathy goes out to everyone who uses Facebook (including my wife, who called my attention to this matter) and is now that much more concerned that their use will lead to unintended negative consequences, I can’t say that I’m very surprised.  Facebook data represents such a juicy target to hackers that occasional breaches are well-nigh inevitable.  Facebook spends enough money on data security to ensure that whatever breaches occur are infrequent enough not to scare most of its users away, and spending a lot more than that would probably cut into their profits severely.  The only way to make Facebook perfectly unhackable would be if it had no users at all, and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

It may seem that I’ve taken 900 words to say only that Facebook isn’t God.  But even the obvious bears repeating every now and then.  If we listen only to what social media organisations tell us about themselves, it is tempting to attribute God-like qualities to them:  omniscience and omnipotence, for example.  And when they inevitably mess up, such as with the latest data breach, we rightly feel a sense of betrayal.  But the Psalmist advises us to “put not your trust in princes,” even princes named Zuckerberg.  And that advice is still good today.

This article has been republished with permission from the Engineering Ethics blog.

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...